#OurPain: Pain doctor who defends opioids under investigation

LAS VEGAS - A prominent pain doctor who was part of the I-Team's special project about the war on opioids is now the focus of a DEA investigation.

Dr. Forest Tennant is a nationally-known pain expert who has been outspoken in his criticism of the opioid crackdown. Now, he finds himself in the crosshairs.

Anyone who saw the I-Team reports about the plight of chronic pain patients will remember Dr. Tennant. He defends the use of high doses of opioids for some patients with intractable pain because, for them, it works.

When the DEA searched his home and office last week, other pain doctors and patients saw it as a warning shot in a war that has left millions of people in a twilight zone of agony.

"There are dozens of studies of opioids. You don't need to study opioids. We've known opioids relieve pain I think before Christ was here. This is not new information," Dr. Tennant said.

California physician Dr. Forest Tennant has been outspoken in his defense of opioids for treating chronic pain patients, including high doses for those with intractable pain. At the recent Pain Week convention in Las Vegas, his medical colleagues honored him with a lifetime achievement award for the pioneering work he's carried out at a small clinic in West Covina.

In July, Reason TV profiled Tennant's work with patients. Last week, the clinic was targeted by DEA agents who seized patient files and financial records. The search warrant outlines DEA's suspicions, that based on high doses of opioids Tennant prescribes, he might be running a drug trafficking operation in which patients sell their excess opioids and kickback money to Tennant.

"These things are so far out of line it's hard to respond almost," Dr. Tennant said.

He points out it is no secret he prescribes high doses of opioids. His clinic is open only one week per month and treats only 150 patients, all of them special cases with severe pain, referred by other doctors who could no longer help them.

Since 2016 when the CDC issued supposedly voluntary guidelines for general practitioners, a nationwide crackdown on opioid prescriptions has left millions of chronic pain patients in an agonizing limbo.

"It's all these things around the regulations that are causing doctors to drop out. My phone fills up by 9 a.m. in the morning. I feel terrible we should be having a discussion. What are we going to do with these people?" Dr. Tennant said.

"They're tragic. People are being harmed mentally emotionally. Families are being destroyed. I've never seen anything like it in this country," Dr. Tennant said.

He says he understands that the DEA needed to go after pill mill doctors back when that was rampant, but that's not him. Despite the suspicions expressed in the search warrant, none of his patients have died of overdoses in the last 10 years, and none have been caught selling their meds.

They fly in from other states where opioid medications have been severely curtailed. Several have stepped forward since the DEA raid to say Tennant saved their lives. They include severely wounded Iraq war veterans abandoned by the V.A. and others who have terminal cancer. 

"Are we going to let these people die, miserable, before their time, or provide them some care before they die? Dr. Tennant said.

The doctor says his clinic is not a big money maker. Patients confirm he barely charges them at all. The main mission, Tennant says, is to study chronic pain and search for alternatives.

News of the DEA action seems to have roused other pain researchers. Several experts have written impassioned defenses of Tennant's work.

Utah Dr. Lynn Webster was likewise targeted by the DEA. Four years after his clinic was raided, the government announced no charges would be filed. By that time, Webster had sold his practice.

"It's a scarlet letter. Whenever you're investigated, there are people who believe there's guilt. I will have to live with that the rest of my life," said Dr. Webster, pain expert.

He and other pain experts suspect the raid on Tennant was meant to intimidate physicians who still prescribe opioids.

Tennant , who is 76, says he isn't going to shut down because his 150 patients have nowhere else to go.

"People who are not even pain patients are starting to see the gross injustice in all this and the tragedy because, guess what? If they can take this person's medical treatment away and let them die, is heart failure medicine next? Is insulin next because they don't like the cost?" Tennant said.

The DEA search warrant specifically mentions the huge cost of fentanyl that Tennant prescribed for some patients. Also named in the warrant was a pharmacy often used by his patients. Included in the warrant is notations that Dr. Tennant was fined 20 years ago and was reprimanded 17 years ago for a misdemeanor charge about his billing.

DEA started its current investigation in 2015 but obtained and served the warrant last week, on the same day Tennant was in Montana to testify in the trial of another pain doctor.

For the I-Team's coverage of the Opioid crisis, #OurPain, click here.


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